Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Cuba: The Morning After — Confronting Castro’s Legacy. He reflected on Castro’s survival in office this week in a London Times column. He also forwarded additional thoughts to us on what he calls “the romance with Castro.” He writes:
I’d like to reflect a bit on the romance of Fidel Castro. It’s something I’ve never quite understood. I must be tone-deaf to Latin charisma, or perhaps it’s because–spending forty years of my professional life around Latin American politicians and intellectuals–I’m not much impressed by it.
The most self-effacing dictator I ever met was–can you believe it?–Peru’s Alberto Fujimori. If you’d sat next to him a plane trip and didn’t know who he was, you’d have imagined him a dentist or computer wonk. The most interesting was Juan Peron (we spent a morning together in Madrid in 1968). I could have met General Pinochet but chose not to, although I regret it now because it would have been interesting to compare him to Fidel Castro, whom I met in 2001.
I went to Cuba as part of a delegation from the Council on Foreign Relations led by David Rockefeller and former Commerce Secretary Pete Peterson. We spent a good five and a half hours with the Maximum Leader (starting at 10.30 at night), and all I can say is, his legendary charm and charisma were on vacation that evening.
He talked endlessly, ceaselessly, and with no real direction. He’d drop to a footnote and expand it an hour, and then have trouble finding his way back to the main point. One of the young women in our group–I believe she was a law student from Columbia who was a friend of Rockefeller’s granddaughter–passed me a note about an hour into the harangue. It said, “How long is this going to go on?” I wrote her back, “You asked for it.” Maybe she thought she was going to meet a rock star.
At about 3:00 in the morning David Rockefeller, always the gentleman, effusively thanked Castro for his time. He said, “Oh, you’ll be even more thankful, because in the next room we’ve prepared a banquet for you.” We moved into the next room, which was set up in an enormous rectangle, where we and others were scattered about with various Cuban government officials and academics.
I sat next to the late William Rogers (not the former secretary of state in the Nixon administration but another Rogers, the one who was undersecretary of state in the Nixon administration). As luck would have it, we were seated about two chairs away from the Maximum Leader. At the risk of being counted as ungracious I have to say the food was disgusting. Castro did not dine; rather, he rather spent the entire time haranguing Pete Peterson.
When the meal was over David Rockefeller rose to thank the Cuban government for all they had done to make our trip a success, and proposed a toast. We all rose with him. After the toast, it was Castro’s turn to return the compliment. He said, “Don’t worry, I’m not going to make a speech.” And then he started in. He must have spoken about 30 to 40 minutes. We were all standing there with our glasses in our hands.
About ten minutes, maybe fifteen, into the Maximum Leader’s speech, Bill Rogers slumped down into his chair, obviously ill. Everybody in the room except Castro stared at him, but nobody moved. Another five minutes Bill passed out. He wasn’t on the floor but he wasn’t sitting up either. At that point Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Castro’s puppet parliament, came racing around from the other end of the table, and asked me what was going on. I said I didn’t know; Bill was obviously sick or worse.
Castro–who couldn’t have been ten feet away–was completely oblivious to all this, delivering his platitudes to a corner between the wall and the ceiling. Alarcon looked at Rogers; then he looked at Castro. He decided on the spot nothing must interrupt the Comandante. So we all stood there for–it seemed like an eternity–until Castro finished. When he finally did end and we could raise our glasses, I felt a huge sigh of relief. Now Castro could be told to attend to Bill’s health. But no, he wandered off into a corner, still talking, until some woman pointed to Rogers.
Then and only then did Castro clap his hands, bodyguards went into action, doctors were produced, and Bill was carried out to some place where he could be given an EKG. Fortunately it was nothing more than heat exhaustion. But he could have died right there and nothing could have been done about it.
It has always seemed to me that this incident is entirely emblematic of Castro’s unnatural self-absorption. In this case it was only Bill Rogers’ fate in the balance; think of how Castro’s ego and indifference to the fate of others has impacted upon an entire people. This is the man that Hollywood, the Associated Press, and CNN apparently think so highly of.